News-Sun photo by CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY (From left) Glenn Phillips, Dana Christensen and Beth Jahna inspect a recently abandoned encampment, arranged around a camp fire site.
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published: Wednesday, January 30, 2013
By CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY
SEBRING -- Seven "collectors"and one reporter gathered near the Dollar Store in Southgate Mall Saturday afternoon. The collectors were out to count the homeless population in Highlands County, or at least a portion -- from Southgate to Highlands Regioinal Medical Center; from U. S. 27 east through heavily wooded areas.
The seven volunteers teamed into twos, armed with LED flashlights and gift packages of individual necessities to hand out. They divided the area and set out about an hour later.
Participating were leader Glenn Phillips, Debbie Greenacre, Victoria Dale, Dana Christensen, Beth Jahna, Harold Baker, and Mike McFarland.
Phillips, Christensen and Jahna crossed the U.S. 27 extention behind Publix and headed to obvious breaks in otherwise overgrown shrubs.
A path lead to an open area of sugar sand surrounded by woods.
"We're looking for openings and narrow beaten paths," Christensen said. "Look. Here's evidence, look at all the footprints."
She talked about participating in an ealier survey -- Christensen; Jahna, who is her sister; and Phillips are all veteran collectors -- where she met a man living in a neat and orderly tent, "He had pots and pans," she said.
Moving on, where tall old oaks and pines formed a canopy overhead, the volunteers found the remains of a sizable encampment, the population of which had clearly been run off.
"This is a pretty homeless sight," Phillips said, looking at the greenery and late afternoon play of light and shade. Then he stepped painfully into one of the ankle high, long needled cacti that dotted the site.
"Those homeless guys better be careful," Phillips said, pulling spines out of his shoe.
On the ground the fairly large area was a mess of discarded junk and litter. Sheets of cardboard, broken ribs of tents or folding cloth chairs, paper, tattered clothing, filthy pillows and dozens, maybe hundreds, of alumnium cans and glass bottles, most around the cold remnants of a carefully cleared camp fire, and mostly cheap beer brands.
"I'd drink too, if I were homeless," said Jahna, prodding a can with her foot.
The place had the feel of an archeological site -- a clear living space, now abandoned except for ghosts.
According to Lisa Lucas, director of the Homeless Coalition, there are between 1,000 to 1,200 homeless people in Highlands County at any one time.
The national average of homeless people is about 1 percent of the population, Lucas said. By comparison, the county's rate is likely to be about 1.2 percent.
She added the numbers have to be estimates, based on accepted scientific methods of extrapulation.
"It is nearly impossible to visit the entire county," Lucas said. "(It) has a total area of 1,106 square miles, of which 1,028 square miles are land; the majority of which is ranch country and groves."
It is not like taking a homeless count in an urban area, where populations settle in, or can be found in a park, she said. "Living hidden in these groves and ranches are the homeless who are the most difficult to find through homeless outreach."
Lucas added, "Like most rural counties in America, Highlands County has no public emergency shelter, and few other resources ... 39 units of transitional housing offer 100 beds for individuals and families who do not have a permanent home.
"Because of this lack of bed inventory," she continued, "a larger percent of the national average of our homeless remain unsheltered."
The main point of the survey, Lucas said, is to raise awareness of a very real problem.
A little clarification please. (by: Blindman - 1/30/2013)
Is it correct to assume raising awareness of a very real problem would be of benefit to to the ones most in need or is this going to lead to some sort of enforcement action?
(by: tom joad - 1/30/2013)
why do they keep getting kicked out of the places they find to live? because someone discloses their location. with pictures. leave them alone and let them have some dignity. if they want to be counted they will come out of the woods. land owners are stingy with unused parcels. campers have obviously been responsible with their fire. as for the garbage, it's not as though they can put it by the curb. as for wanna-be humanitarians seeking guilt relief, hunting unfortunates in the woods like a bigfoot expedition. at least they have something to talk about while patting themselves on the back over lunch. Recounting their harrowing excursion into the treacherous jungles of the old abandoned sebring golf course with only one bottle of fresh water and a pack of chex mix to sustain them. labor finders was the only hope for the homeless in this town. labor finders do their best. but day jobs have dried up like the parched lips of a brave homeless "collector", sun withered and weary. Marching onward through the sugar sand and palmettos in pursuit of a warm, fuzzy feeling for helping people that want to be left alone
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